Downturn Dos and Don'ts.

by Regan McMahon


Open communication has been the hallmark of the parenting style in my household, where we have never talked down to our kids, discussing politics and sticky family issues freely at the dinner table or whenever they might come up. But one thing we have tried to shield our kids from are financial discussions, apart from saying things like “No, we can’t afford that” when a reality check was necessary.


But in these scary economic times, I have found myself slipping behind closed doors to make a call to T. Rowe Price to reallocate retirement fund and sneaking outside, practically crouching behind a bush, to speak to my union rep about my company’s buyout offer.


Kids need to feel secure, so I don’t feel like sharing these particular concerns with them. After my daughter overheard snippets of a phone conversation the other day, she broadsided me with the question, “Are you getting a new job?”


“Not yet,” I answered, sheepishly.


“Well, if you do, just make sure you get a job where you get free stuff,” she said.


As a professional book critic, I have brought countless free books home from work during her brief lifetime. And thanks to my husband, a pop music writer and editor, there’s a steady stream of free CDs rushing though our house. For my kids, abundance and free-flowing work-related goodies are normal. Belt-tightening and the possibility of the swag river drying up is not.


In these difficult times, somehow we have to strike a balance between total honesty and shielding out kids from unnecessary anxiety. We’ve all heard stories about the husband who gets up every day, dresses in a suit and leaves for work, hiding the fact that he was laid off months before but is afraid to tell his wife. I’m not going to start telling my kids whoppers so they can feel safe. But I also don’t want my adult problems to become their problems if they don’t have to. I think the key is maintaining an even keel emotionally – not an easy thing for a weeper like me who tends to wear my heart on my sleeve – and striving to tell kids what they can handle, not necessarily everything.


Tough revelations in the past have included having to put a beloved cat down after it got a terminal diagnosis, the fact that my sister was divorcing her husband, the hard truth that my father had just died. Of course we would have liked to have shielded the kids from the pain and sadness that resulted from these events, but we couldn’t. The news had to be shared in whatever kid-sized version we could manage.


My parents went through the Great Depression, and I remember my father telling me how he was the richest kid in his class in the seventh grade and the poorest kid in the eighth grade due to his father’s losses. My mother actually had a classmate whose father put his head in the oven rather than face his financial ruin. Those experiences made an indelible impression on both my parents, and I thought that kind of deep national financial crisis would never be seen in my lifetime. Yet now the comparisons are drawn and contemplated daily in news stories as we watch our 401Ks dwindle away and brace for layoffs.